The National Weather Service forecasted cloudy skies Monday night, which thwarted Highland County’s budding astronomers from witnessing an event that has not occurred in nearly eight centuries: the “great conjunction” of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in the night sky.
Although the astronomical phenomenon normally occurs every 20 years, this year’s conjunction was nicknamed the “Christmas Star” by astronomers because of its occurrence on Monday evening, Dec. 21, the date of the annual winter solstice. The nickname references the biblical account of the wise men who followed a star that appeared in the eastern sky, which guided them to where the Christ child lay in a manger.
NASA said that the great conjunction of the gas giant and the ringed planet would give the appearance of a double planet or a very bright single star, which would appear just a tenth of a degree apart, about the thickness of a dime held at arm’s length.
Monday’s conjunction is the first time since just before dawn on the morning of March 4, 1226, that people could see Jupiter and Saturn aligned so closely, according to NASA. Although a similarly close alignment occurred in 1623, stargazers of the Middle Ages were unable to see it as both planets were too near the sun.
The next super-close Jupiter-Saturn conjunction will occur on March 15, 2080, according to calculations provided by NASA.
With the weather service calling for mostly clear skies Tuesday night, anyone in Highland County with an unobstructed view of the southwestern sky will be able to continue to track Jupiter and Saturn as they drift further apart after Monday’s conjunction, with both being easily visible through a small telescope, binoculars or with the naked eye an hour after sunset.
Although both planets appear to be very close to each other, they are in-fact hundreds of millions of miles apart, according to NASA.
According to the website TheSkyLive.com, Jupiter is currently nearly 551 million miles from Earth, while Saturn is 1.6 billion miles distant.
Reach Tim Colliver at 937-402-2571.